Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation

In 1981, Elizabeth Glaser received blood transfusions following the birth of her daughter Ariel. Then, in 1986, two years after her second child, Jake, was born, tests showed that Ariel had AIDS, contracted through breast-feeding. Elizabeth and Jake both tested HIV positive, and Glaser's husband Paul, of TV's Starsky and Hutch fame, was free of the virus. Well aware of the stigma of AIDS at that time, the Glasers retreated behind a wall of secrecy to protect their family. Only when the National Enquirer threatened to invade that privacy, did the Glasers go public. Ariel died at the age of seven. Elizabeth went on to found the Pediatric AIDS Foundation and become a fierce social activist, and one of the most famous women in America.

I became a trusted advisor, handling the communications for the family and the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. I began helping the Glasers soon after they discovered their devastating diagnosis. I helped establish the foundation and provided public relations for the next seven years until Elizabeth died in 1993. I first helped the family keep their privacy for as long as possible, but when that no longer became tenable, I managed the media around the family going public. As the foundation grew, Elizabeth became a major public figure in the fight against AIDS and I worked with her and the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in using the media and communications to educate the public and elected officials, and to raise desperately needed funds for research. My good friend Kathie Berlin was also instrumental in this process.

Below are excerpts from Elizabeth’s book, In the Absence of Angels: A Hollywood Family’s Courageous Story, published in 1991, which recounts some of our history working together.

Pages 94 – 96

Paul and I had met Josh Baran over the years at political fundraisers and through mutual friends.  He ran his own public relations firm. When we decided a contingency plan might be wise, we needed to find someone who would help us create it.

He’s a very savvy and intelligent publicist and was a perfect choice to help us. Josh’s past history showed he wasn’t afraid of sensitive or somewhat challenging issues. Josh has represented everyone from the Dalai Lama to Diane Keaton, but most of his work is devoted to issues of social concern. He is not intimidated by complex issues, he thrives on them.

We approached Josh who graciously volunteered his time to help us develop strategies to protect our story. With his help, we prepared for the worst. If our story became public, we had a press release ready to go. We also wrote a very personal letter that would be mailed to all our Crossroads (local private school) parents with a packet of relevant AIDS information and articles. As I wrote the letter, my heart felt like it had been hit by a torpedo. It was the first time I had put my story on paper.

The letter was locked up in Joanie’s office. It sat there waiting for a catastrophe. Josh Baran became crucial to protecting our secret. He was like an early warning detection system. He picked up scuttlebutt in the Hollywood community. He chased down rumors and was able to confront or deflect them. If any calls came into this office, or if someone on the staff heard something, he simply responded by saying the Glasers don’t give interviews and whatever rumors they heard were wrong.

Ultimately, Josh says, he knew the secret was doomed. “We all knew in our gut that this would come out eventually. It was inevitable. People love to gossip and too many people knew some of the story.”

Pages 117 – 118

[Note: Elizabeth’s daughter Ariel was getting progressively sicker. Elizabeth decides that it’s time for her to become actively involved in doing something about the AIDS crisis. The family’s secret has still not yet hit the media. The meeting recounted below marks the very beginning of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.]

It was as if I had suddenly awakened and realized that there was no one waiting to make everything all right for us. I had convinced myself that at some moment when our lives seemed utterly hopeless an angel would suddenly appear to set everything right. Well, there weren’t going to be any angels of that kind. If anything was going to be done, I was the one who would have to do it. This was not a role I wanted. I simply had no choice.

I called Josh Baran, our friend and publicist, and invited over the next night. I felt there was no time to lose. I sat him down at the kitchen table and got out a legal pad and a pen.

“Josh, I want to do something.”

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

Once again, a desperate mother’s voice said, “I don’t know exactly. Josh, I want to save my family, but I think to do that I have to change the world. So much seems to be wrong in this battle against AIDS.”

“Okay, how do you want to go about it?” he said without missing a beat.

“I have no idea, but I don’t think I can do it privately. I can’t raise enough money. I think I have to do it federally. I have to do it at the highest level. I want to go to Reagan.”

“Right, Elizabeth, we can’t futz around here. If you’re going to do something, you have got to go for the biggest thing you can. You don’t have time to have little bake sales and seminars and fundraisers that raise $5,000. We really have to reach the top people.” I like the way Josh thinks.

“If you’re going to do this,” he continued, “you’ll have to educate yourself. You can’t do this just knowing about your own life.”

“Okay, where do I start?”

“Get a copy of And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’s book on AIDS, start reading the newspapers every day, and start talking to people.”

[Note: After the diagnosis, Elizabeth was overwhelmed and stopped reading newspapers, magazines, and watching the news to avoid all the stories about the AIDS crisis. It made sense at the time.]

We began making lists...

[Note: Within a few months, she had meetings with top researchers, the U.S. Surgeon General, members of Congress and the Senate. She was still very private — her story was not out yet and she swore everyone she met to secrecy, but the circle of those who knew was growing. At that time, there were no drug trials involving children and AZT, no research in this area whatsoever. Within months, she met with President and Mrs. Reagan in the White House.]

Pages 259 – 271 (selected highlights)

[Note: Elizabeth along with her two best friends, Susan De Laurentis and Suzie Zeegan, created the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. They quickly became high-energy spontaneous activists and lobbyists, meeting with many health officials and members of Congress in Washington, DC, yet still swearing everyone they met to keep the Glaser’s secret. They even pulled together a major fundraiser for their new foundation starring Cher, but Elizabeth remained in the shadows. And soon after Ariel died at the age of seven, too many people knew some or all of the story, there were more rumors, and the National Enquirer was tipped off and they put on numerous reporters on the story. Finally, an editor calls from the National Enquirer to confirm the story. The Glasers go into full crisis mode since they know, one way or another, their lives are about to become very public.]

Josh Baran, our publicist in LA, was checking in every few hours. He was monitoring the situation as best he could, counting the dozens and dozens of phone calls from all over town.

When the Enquirer finally called Josh at his office, he played dumb, saying we were somewhere out of town. The caller said we were on the Vineyard and gave Josh our number there. Josh wondered to himself whether they had people following us.

Josh did some digging of his own and found out when the Enquirer planned to run the story. We had about seven days to try to figure out a counter-attack that might successfully block them.

Paul and I had been planning to return to Los Angeles that week. We canceled our plane reservations, which had been made in our own name, and rebooked under an alias. Our fear was that the Enquirer would have a photographer at one of the airports to try to take a picture of our family. Josh felt it was very possible that the Enquirer might have offered as much as $25,000 for the picture of the three of us together....

As soon as we got back to LA, we met with Josh and Jake Bloom, our lawyer, to map out our strategy. We decided to have Josh call the editor of the National Enquirer. The goal was to buy time either by threat of legal action or by having Josh enter into some sort of false negotiations.

When Josh called the Enquirer, the magazine said that if they could get one quote from us, they would not print the whole story about our family. They would run an “alternate” story instead, saying only that Ariel had died from AIDS after being infected from a blood transfusion. There would be no mention of me or of Jake. Here is a magazine that pretends to be legitimate and yet unabashedly offers to run an “alternate” story just to get a quote!

I think the (threat of a) lawsuit had scared them. We were saying, and rightfully so, while Paul was a public figure, Jake and I were not and information about us was not in the public domain. I believe they decided then not to run the whole family story because of their vulnerability, not because of anything else. 

The Enquirer then decided to hold the story for a week. We don’t know why — probably to rewrite it without me and Jake. The delay bought us vital time.

Josh stalled, telling the Enquirer that he would go over their offer with us and get back to them in a few days. We were convinced that no matter what we did, they story was going to run. Josh did not think that there was any way that we could get it killed. The only option was to beat them at their own game and break the story in another publication on our terms. If we could not kill the story, we could at least tell it our way first.

Josh knew a reporter at the Los Angeles Times named Janet Huck. Paul and I could not decide immediately what to do. We listened to Lloyd and Josh and Jake Bloom, but we were scared. What if we told our story and the Enquirer held theirs? But we did not have the luxury of time in which to make up our minds. If we were going to go ahead and tell it, the Los Angeles Times needed days to get the piece together. I was hedging but Paul said, “Elizabeth, we have no choice. Sooner or later, this will come out.”  e looked at Josh and said, “Call Janet Huck.” The decision was made. We knew we weren’t turning back....

On Monday morning, August 21, we sat down to be interviewed by Janet Huck. Paul and I were apprehensive and fearful. We were now telling the story that everyone would read and were obviously concerned about how the story would be received. We didn’t want pity. We didn’t want to seem like freaks. We wanted people to feel compassion and then prayed they would be educated. After the story was published, we wanted to be treated just like everybody else.

We thought carefully about what we said. It seemed everything was riding on how this reporter told our story. Would our community accept or reject us? Would they care enough to become educated if they were not? Could this help educate Washington pediatric AIDS as well as raise money for research? There was a lot at stake, but nothing was more important to us than Jake’s wellbeing....

Josh called the Enquirer that Tuesday... and said Paul and I would not provide a comment for their story. We knew that meant they would run their piece the next week. It would probably hit the stands the following Monday or Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the day after the parents meeting (at the school), the Los Angeles Times called the editor of the Enquirer and asked him to comment on reports that his magazine was hounding the Glaser family. He slammed the phone down.

Then the Enquirer had the gall to tell Josh that they wanted to run the address of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation at the end of their story so people could send donations. We refused. We would never let them camouflage their scandalous behavior behind an appeal for funds.

Then on the morning of Friday, August 25, like countless other Los Angeles residents, I opened my front door and picked up the Times from the sidewalk. There, smack dab on the cover of the “View” section, was a half-page color picture of Paul and me. We were flung across front lawns and driveways and doorsteps all across Los Angeles. I started reading the story immediately. Beneath a bold headline which reads, “Breaking the Silence," it said, “Starsky Star, Wife, Share their Families Painful Battle Against AIDS.”

When I walked into the house, I spread the newspaper out on our big kitchen table so we could both read it together. Paul and I had not seen an advance copy of the text. We were so anxious that we read the whole article standing up. When we finished, Paul looked at me and said, “Now we wait and see what happens.”...

The Enquirer article came out but we never read it. I felt that would somehow mean that the tabloid had won. I did see the pictures. I thought they had already done everything terrible and atrocious that they possibly could, but I was wrong. There was a picture of Ari’s grave site.